Playing With the Light.

By   May 16, 2013

May 2013

Playing With the Light.

A little light sometimes sneaks into the basement.

The wharf jutting out into the stream at Hudson’s Mill attracts a small crowd at all times of the day in all seasons of the year. Ice fishing and skating start early in these parts and the short summers fill with local swimmers and the odd tourist come to catch up on a little history. The park is THE best place for a picnic and a quick ‘get wet’ when the daytime temperatures hit the high 30’s.

Sunsets can be particularly wonderful on the prairie. Even understanding all of what goes into building a blue and red and purple sky doesn’t distract from the joy of watching the free show.

Click on photo for enlargement

The sky scene was done backwards. That’s the best way I can describe it. The second floor of that building on the left is home to a spot light shining across two tracks onto the far wall of the basement about 18 inches away. Once established exactly where the light would focus that spot was painted white at the center fading to yellow and them pink/red as the distance from the ‘sun’ increased. After that, what would eventually come to represent long, low clouds, were marked out and the deeper blue sky (darker than my daylight sky) was painted all around.

The effect has been very successful over the 8 to 10 years that corner has lit up the nighttime section of the layout at Hudson. It offers just enough reflected light on the town so that visitors can take in the details and still enough darkness that the street lights and car lights show up really well.


The trailer park on “the other side of the tracks” is home to a different crowd than the one that populates the suburban north end of the city and they probably wouldn’t be comfortable down town even if they could afford the rent. They sure wouldn’t fit in well that that new gated community off High Street.

But the places are warm and dry and all the neighbours know and look out for each other. Rents are low and front steps are welcome rests for anyone who stops by. Everyone knows where the fridge is in every house and they’re free to grab a cold one when the nights get hot and sticky.

Click on photo for enlargement

At one time I had this crazy idea that I would populate Hudson with a model of every house we had owned or rented over the years. This would create a real town without the model railroad look that’s just about unavoidable using ‘out of the box’ buildings. It would also take up the whole basement because I’m in my 11th house as I write this. So that 1st old trailer would do it then. Nothing more.

It was the first one on the left in Jardine’s Trailer Park in Chatham New Brunswick. It was pink and silver and the rain poured in and ran down towards the end where it pooled at the side of the bed built into the back wall. There was no way of reaching the kitchen without getting your feet wet. I kept my work boots safe in the bathtub.

Crossing the tracks can be a dangerous activity pretty much anywhere at any time if you don’t have inside information about train movement. Here in Pearson everyone knows the ‘train times’ and they often plan their trips to and from work or school or shopping around that event. Twice daily. It wasn’t so bad a few years ago as those trains where little more than peddler freights running on a bare bones operation that, on more than one occasion, couldn’t pay their staff at the end of the day. Oil changed that. All commodities changed that. A housing boom and poor weather in southern breadbaskets changed that.

Now trains are a mile long and speed almost silently through town on welded rail. They can catch the unprepared by surprise and offer up a grizzly end to anyone without a sharp eye and a dose of good sense. But just not this early in the morning. It will be another hour before the tower makes contact with incoming and the station greets a crew change. Expect 10,000 horsepower to roll by at walking speed, holding the couplers tight, and then charge on into the mountains, Colder and a new day.

Click on photo for enlargement

The primary overhead lighting down here is divided into two sections.  The lounge/workshop area – and the rest of the place.  I can sit at the computer, the workbench or just relax and watch some TV on this side and the other side remains dark.  At a certain time of year – at a certain time of day – a single stream of light will find it’s way under the deck out back, over the edge of the sunken window and onto the yard in Pearson.  In early May?  Around 18:30

There is a lot that a newer digital camera will do.  Couple that with an Adobe style photo package of your choice and you can make just about any photo inside look like outside.  Well, some people can.  I have to wait until some real sunshine sneaks in and then I can’t resist a quick picture as it passes.

The ‘grain trains’ in Hudson start to fill the yard around the end of August, peak in September and then settle down into a rhythm until the beginning of April. The Winter Valley is blessed with being located in a fast growing region feeding product to/from a major junction west of Edmonton. Edmonton traffic feeds both Prince Rupert and Vancouver in the West as well as major population centers in the East. It’s also fortunate to be sitting on a reliable oil supply, huge timber recourses, and the rebirth of coal in Asia.

The first of the new cylindrical hoppers are showing up on a regular basis now. No more ½ filled boxcars and grain doors. Much political hay is being made of their arrival. Locals had made a living bitching about how the grain growers, and the West in general, were being forgotten by those Eastern politicians. When thousands of these modern cars started to show up they were stumped for a day or two. Not for long though. Talking high taxes now. Around here people from Ontario and Quebec can’t do anything right.

Click on photo for enlargement

I would so much like to build about two more of these but it was a devil of a job – and not cheap.   Now it’s true, there weren’t great long unit trains of these back in 1975 but they look so good together.   My single car looses much of its impact I’m afraid and I won’t buy the odd hoppers painted to look Canadian..

Anyway, the layout can only handle 20 to 25 cars.  No more or the yards get choked and useless.  I keep my 35 out there for when visitors are in (show and tell) but remove a bunch for operating.  Steal boxcars, mostly of the fifty-foot variety, and tank cars predominate.  There are two stock cars that seldom operate as well as one reefer that sits on a siding most days.  Lumber center-beam cars and open gondolas are often seen in trains and all trains enjoy a caboose.  There is a 70 foot combine and some coal hoppers.  No room for M of W equipment but the wedge plow shows up as ‘scenery’ in Grande Prairie.

Most folks in Winter Valley don’t get down to the industrial side of the tracks. They view the station, the warehouse and the grain elevator from the downtown side as they go about their day. Shopping, banking, going to school, church or getting the truck fixed are all things that get done with few thoughts about trains and the wealth they bring to the town. The horns sound, the bells ring and the couplers crash with little direct impact on most busy families.

Take a closer look though. Old man Huff is setting up the auger. He’ll be picking up a truckload of feed grain for his pigs. A weighed hopper will be moved into place, Huff will draw what he needs and the hopper will be weighed again. The difference will be paid. He will also buy new jeans in town and some school supplies for his daughter. His wife wants some Canadian Cheddar and a cake mix. A forklift will unload a car of plywood and move it into that new building supply place. It too will be sold locally. This town relies on that seldom seen place across the track.

Click on photo for enlargement

Taking photos from the far side of the central layout is a huge challenge. Well, not completely true. Anyone can take all the pictures they want from back there but they have to accommodate the basement door, the lounge windows, the back of the TV, light fixtures and the worst part of the workbench to say nothing of all the scenery that comes with Grande Prairie.

If I wait until dark, turn out all the lights in Grande Prairie and supply just one spotlight over the station I can eliminate all the background noise apart from a ceiling joist or two. Items easily removed with Photo Deluxe. Wish I had taken this picture after I’d strung all those beautiful telephone lines though. It would have emphasized the vanishing point much better and broken up the big black.

As a preschooler in For Qu’Appelle SK I remember sitting on the tracks in the summer and all I could hear on a bright, super-hot afternoon were grasshoppers. Even the birds had taken shelter from the heat. This low camera angle reminds me of that. I may still have the burn mark on my backside but it’s pretty much out of sight now days. The burn marks that is. The trains still run through the valley.

The whole thing must have made a much deeper impression on me than hot steel on bare skin because I have loved prairie railroading all my life. Even during those years before ’72 or ’73 when I found modelling. Course this isn’t the station in ‘the Fort’ or Indian Head down the line. Those stations were E type designs for the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Fort Qu’Appelle still stands as a tourist center. The Winter Valley station is an iconic Canadian Northern 3rd Class Depot.

Click on photo for enlargement

I used Turtleford SK as my station model. My uncle had retired as the Station Agent up there. The stucco, the colours, the accoutrements were right. Only after I found the Canadian National Western Depots by Charles Bohi did I see the nearly identical photos of St. Gregor SK as well as the floor plans. I had used
plans found in the June ’77 RMC and built it out on my deck. It was HUGE in my eyes, as I had just given up 25+ years of N scale to do this.

There were no great construction hints on this sort of thing back in 1998 so I made it all up as I went along. Marine grade plywood, no holes for critters, stucco made with exterior paint and HO scale ballast, cedar shingles from a fence paling and a whole lot of clear Varathane inside and out. The old girl spent 3 years outside, summer and winter, with no damage. Retired inside now for twelve.

More effective than a rooster, but perhaps less often on time, 8106 sounds the grade crossing signal on 1st Avenue where John and Dian Green are still building their outdoor railroad in the back yard. They’ve been at it for a couple of years now and it seems they can’t make up their mind on exactly what they want back there. The original plane was to build a small, narrow gauge layout with a couple of early steam locomotives moving outside braced boxcars and colourful reefers. That was torn up in favour of wider turns that could accommodate the 4 axel diesels that he grew up watching on the NAR – and that he can still see passing through the back lane over his fence.

That railroad was actually running quite well and he had friends over from work to ‘lay the last spike’ in his back yard. Everyone loved it. Even people who had never had any inclination towards trains. Some suggested that he would soon ask for council’s permission to extend his track into the park next door. Now he’s seen the new USAT catalog and has ordered up an SD70 in CN along with a pair each of modern USAT tank cars and hoppers. More track is in the works.

Click on photo for enlargement

I’ve has quite a few people down here over the past 10 years or at least those years following completion of Centennial Park and all of them say it’s the best work I’ve done. I’m quite proud of the feature in some odd way because for this, I didn’t really do anything.

I moved that hot rod out of there (never liked it) and installed a soon to be classic Chevy much more in keeping with a small prairie town in the 70’s. With pick-ups of course. Well, that’s my thinking anyway. I lived through those years – in those places – and a hot rod was more like dads thing. Both vehicles are wired beautifully by the actual 1:1 scale John Green; headlights, tail lights and turn signals.

A few years back I measured and photographed a building in Landis SK.  The old beer parlor (They didn’t have ‘pubs’ then) and hotel was waiting out its final days all boarded up and in the rain.  The wrecking ball soon followed and the corner lot at the end of Main Street is now empty.  Google Maps still show the hotel on the southwest corner…,-108.45300&z=16&t=h

            ….but Street View, if you have it, shows the grassy vacant lot and that lovely, lonely fireplug.  A great little detail.

Click on photo for enlargement

That fireplug reminds me that we should make some obvious effort to build a past into our scenery. One small abandoned building, even relatively new, conveys the passage of time. Not everything in the scene just showed up overnight unless you’re modeling a panning operation during the gold rush.

You might model an old railway bridge still used as a walking trail or for ATVs. Maybe a single old brick building amongst the modern steel structures at a factory. You’d probably find it out near the front gate covered with vines. A cenotaph is an ideal something front and center on Main Street. It could fill an unusual small space and is very easy to make. Add a sprinkling of flowers and a little green grass to the urban scene. Be obvious if you like. Perhaps a foundation with steps leading to basement full of scrap metal and maybe an old rusty furnace.


Around Labour Day every year a bunch of local students head out to collage or university in Edmonton, Calgary and even Vancouver. It has become a rite of passage around here that they spend the first day on the train. There are plenty of ways to get south out of Pearson; bus, cars and even a local flight will get you into down town Edmonton, but that coach ride is unbeatable. Safe, comfortable and a party city on the move. No one over 30 welcome.

During the evening the light from the station illuminates the platform and the single combine. Extra staff is assigned to load baggage and keep a quiet eye on the passengers. They’re told that pretty much anything goes on this trip as long as it doesn’t result in damage to railway property. Over the years those passengers have come to know just what works and what does not. Word spreads and everyone has fun even if they do sport a hell of a headache in the morning.

Click on photo for enlargement

My Preiser figures are about 10% too tall. Actually 10% too everything. But I find that there simply isn’t anything better in the large-scale marketplace. Anywhere. Not even close. Model railroad manufactures that do sell their own figures insist on producing out of proportion toys that bare little or no resemblance to humans. And more, the single manufacturer that does build ‘in scale’ offers us policemen, firemen, solders, fat brides, hobos and clowns. A very polite letter to Aristocraft regarding their odd selection of figures brought the reply that their figures were created by a leading designer in the field. End of discussion.

So the girls on the way south. The headlights that offer a little light on the subject are again the fine work of John Green. That old Mustang is a classic today and how many people wish they still had theirs. And had kept it in good shape. Not possible of course. They were built like junk right out of the factory, as were all North American cars of that decade.


I expect people have been meeting out behind the barn for a very, very long time. For want of a barn though these folks are meeting behind the warehouse next to the Co-op elevator. Same thing. Flirting, exchanging high school gossip and a few notes while her collie dog chases critters, imaginary and otherwise, in the stubble field next door. If the evening gets cooler and he gives her his school jacket then you’ll know it’s serious.

Anyway, it’s a perfect end to a perfect cloudless day. You can hear the crickets tonight and the frogs and a far away owl. Even the timbers in the elevator move ever so quietly as the bolts and nails that hold it all together begin to loose the heat they collected in the warm Indian Summer sun.

Click on photo for enlargement

Somewhere back there I said that at a certain time of day the sun would find a small crack in my basement and brake in to illuminate some unsuspecting scene. In the early morning the same thing occurs on the East side of the house. It will slip under the front porch and in through the basement window and onto the village of Winter Valley. Sometimes I just like to sit and watch it for while as the natural light brings life to inanimate objects in a way that all the photofloods in the world can’t match.

I got a great deal of joy running trains outside and I marveled at all the new scenes that were made for me as the sky changed with the hours and the days and the weeks and the months. It was a challenge just to keep up with it all and I struggled over photos that were so much alike yet beautifully different. Which to publish and which to store away?

In the end, the fun of year round modelling – in detail – called me back inside and I don’t regret it. Well, except for the light.

See you all at